Organic products continue to grow in double-digit sales at supermarkets around the country, reaching $35.1 billion in 2013. This is great news for people who actively support the positive impacts of organic agriculture regarding ecologically healthy habitats and sustainability. Yet what isn’t widely understood about organic agriculture is that organic farmers still face significant challenges in bringing their products to market. The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) is actively working to level the playing field for organic agriculture and bring value into the system so that it directly benefits organic farmers and consumers.
NCGA works in partnership with the National Organic Coalition (NOC) to preserve organic integrity, and part of this work supports farm bill negotiations on behalf of the organic community. “We prioritize advocacy work in support of the USDA National Organic Program in part because so many of the issues that co-op shoppers tend to care about, from GMOs to pollinator health, are addressed by the organic standards,” said Robynn Shrader, chief executive officer of NCGA. Due in large part to NOC’s direct lobbying, the Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, included several important wins for organic, such as funding for research, incentives for small farmers, data collection and technology upgrades. Two programs, known as “cost-share” and the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), are exemplary of the kinds of priorities that NOC supports.
The Organic Certification Cost-Share Program earmarked $12.5 million dollars to provide small and beginning farmers reimbursements toward the cost of organic certification, up to $750 per certification. “It’s meaningful because it helps grow the organic supply and maintain diversity by making certification accessible to small producers,” said Allie Mentzer, NCGA’s advocacy specialist.
Another significant funding initiative in the farm bill is the $19 million allocated to theOREI, which provides grants for research projects specific to the needs of organic agriculture. This way, organic projects can get a share of the money coming to the United States Department of Agriculture that has typically funded conventional agricultural research. Thanks in part to NOC’s work, the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill injected millions of dollars into the organic system. “The 2014 Farm Bill is an important victory for the whole organic community,” said Mentzer. NOC is already setting strategic priorities for the next round of farm bill negotiations.
In addition to NCGA using its influence to put more funds in the system for organic agriculture, it is also addressing another issue critical to organic farming: access to enough organic seeds. Most plant breeders develop seeds with conventional or biotech methods in mind so they produce seed varieties that tend to require chemical inputs to thrive. In contrast, organic seeds are bred and cultivated to be hardier, resistant to pests, and adaptable to different regions and weather patterns.
Seed Matters is a non-profit championed by NCGA, along with several like-minded organizations, including Organic Valley, to address the lack of organic seeds by funding university-level plant breeders to develop varieties that are especially well-suited to organic methods. “We think the availability of regionally adapted, organic seeds will be even more important as climate change unfolds,” Mentzer said.
Regarding all of their advocacy activities, Shrader said, “On behalf of its membership, NCGA is committed to supporting long-term initiatives to maintain and improve organic standards, organic integrity and organic supply.”
4PCG Focus—Strategic Leadership: successfully articulating the cooperative’s direction/purpose and setting up the organization for movement in this direction. Each issue of Connections will focus on one pillar of the Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance. For more information about 4PCG, read the articles in the January/February 2014 and March/April 2014 issues of Cooperative Grocer.